Kelly Flemings arranges books by author and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson outside of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Diversify luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Friday, June 23, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Wilkerson spoke at the luncheon.

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Blacks' migration to North was about freedom, author says

The shift of more than 6 million blacks from the South to the North or West last century was about freedom, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer said Friday.

"People think this great migration is about moving," said author Isabel Wilkerson in Chattanooga. "In fact, this migration and all migrations are about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it."

Wilkerson, who wrote the best-seller "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," said the people behind such migrations are usually young and make a sacrifice by leaving behind their relatives and pasts.

She said they have "bequeathed us a beautiful burden" to make that sacrifice mean something.

"I truly do not believe these people set out on these boats, on these trains, make these long journeys for us to be turning on one another here in the 21st century," said Wilkerson, the first black woman in American journalism history to win a Pulitzer, which she did in 1994 for her work as Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times.

Speaking at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's Diversify luncheon, the author talked about her book, published about seven years ago, and about how millions of blacks moved out of the South between 1915 and 1970.

What made it different from other migrations, she said, is that it's the only time in American history that citizens "had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens they had always been."

"No other group of Americans has had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens," Wilkerson said. "This happened in the borders of our own country."

Wilkerson said the movement by blacks wasn't an example of relocation from one city to another for a job.

"This was in fact a defection, a seeking of political asylum of within the borders of one's own country," she said.

Wilkerson said the migration involved people "actually defecting a caste system the effects of which we still live with to this day."

She said the system was so arcane in the South that, for example, it was unlawful for a black and white to play checkers against one another in Birmingham, Ala.

The people of the migration were at the bottom of their world, having little in resources or access to education, Wilkerson said. But, by their actions, they had "great power," she said.

"For the first time in the country's history, the lowest caste signaled they had options and were willing to take them," the writer said.

It was the first time in the nation's history that the lowest caste had the chance to choose what they would do with their God-given talents and where they would pursue them.

Wilkerson said there was also a loss on the other side of the caste system.

"When you have such a dehumanizing caste system such as this, it dehumanizes everyone in that world," she said.

Wilkerson called it a spiritual loss.

"If you're going to hold someone down in the ditch, you have to get into the ditch with them and when you're holding them down in the ditch neither of you are able to fulfill your God-given talents on this planet," she said.

Wilkerson's speech capped a week-long celebration of Chattanooga's diversity that included five days of pop-up shops and business fairs downtown this week.

Maria Noel, the Chamber's director of diversity and inclusion, said Diversify offered a full week of events for the first time. From shopping to business networking to local music and food, it offered themed daily pop-up markets and concluded with the luncheon.

"Diversify is how the Chamber is building an inclusive business community," said Noel. "Chattanooga doesn't have anything else like this that brings together businesses representing all the different people here — from entrepreneurs to people who love the outdoors to all kinds of artists."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.